Gem show highlights DeBeers, diamonds


March 13, 1991|By Michael Hill

They don't sing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" on tonight's National Geographic special, though they could easily change the lyrics and croon "Diamonds are DeBeers' Best Friend."

A gentle chronicling of the monopolistic control of the world's diamond market by the DeBeers firm is but one of the many fascinating aspects of "Splendid Stones," another quality hour from National Geographic that will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, tonight at 8 o'clock.

Diamonds might be at the pinnacle of the stone trade, but this documentary takes you around the world to see the full panoply of gems that have fascinated mankind for thousands of years.

You get to see emeralds emerging from the mud of the mountains of Colombia, sapphires found amid the muck of Thailand, and rubies, or the scientific equivalent, coming out of the oven of a scientist in America.

The special makes a semantic leap from its title to include pearls in the hour, giving a glimpse of the huge cultured pearl industry in Japan that puts oysters to work making an honest living, and a look at an American entrepreneur trying to give the Japanese some competition using new shapes and the pearl-building abilities of freshwater mussels in Tennessee.

But it saves much of its time and energy for a look at the most enticing of stones, the diamond. Indeed, the hour opens with a glimpse at an auction in London as what is described by Richard Kiley's narration as a bit of carbon with a tiny amount of chromium for color is being sold for something like $6 million.

Such huge stones are only the tip of an international iceberg of diamonds, all controlled by the DeBeers concern. The company was started by Cecil Rhodes -- of Rhodesia and Rhodes scholarship fame -- and literally cornered the market.

In one fascinating segment, the National Geographic cameras take you into the DeBeers London headquarters where, the narration claims, 80 percent of the world's diamonds are appraised and sorted. It's an amazing sight.

You learn that DeBeers offers diamonds for sale to a limited number of buyers only 10 times a year. You travel with one of them, a man from New York, as he goes to London, where he must deal with another level of bureaucracy, a brokerage house, and face what is essentially a take-it-or-leave-it offer from DeBeers.

Below the Kafka-like atmosphere of DeBeers, diamond trading takes on an amazing amount of personality and color. Within a carefully secured diamond traders' club in New York, individual buyers and sellers negotiate business, sounding like people haggling over the price of a pancho in a Mexican bazaar, but talking prices in the thousands of dollars for tiny stones they carry in their pockets.

"Splendid Stones" could come down a bit harder on DeBeers' monopoly and what it means to the prices in the diamond trade, but it soft pedals that aspect, as it does the DeBeers' South African connection.

Still, it does make clear that some more recent producers, such as a huge mine in Australia, chafe under DeBeers' reins. And there is the possibility of a major diamond find in Arkansas, though exploiting it is currently in litigation since much of it lies under a state park currently open to anyone who wants to sift for diamonds by hand.

"Splendid Stones" could have used a little more science, perhaps some good animation to explain the structure of these gems, what it is that makes their appearance so magical.

And, surprisingly for National Geographic, it's also a bit weak on history, mentioning only in passing the role that stones and gems have played in defining and delineating royalty, and only referring to some of the mystique and lore that surround these gleaming bits of color.

Still, in its relatively thorough examination of the mining and marketing of the stones, it makes clear that these gems travel an interesting route from the bowels of the Earth to the ring around a finger.

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